At least once a week, Bill Silen, former chief surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital, drives to Cambridge Hospital to help train third year Harvard Medical students.
Driving is nothing new to Silen, who at 82 years old helms his Toyota Highlander with finesse. But Silen, a resident of Lasell Village, a retirement community on the campus of Lasell College in Auburndale, Mass., says driving is no longer as low-key as it used to be, largely the result of taking an AARP-sponsored driver safety refresher course last month.
"I used to be much more relaxed about it," said Silen, a grandfather of three and longtime Weston resident. "And maybe it's because I'm learning a lot more. But I'm aware of the fact that I have to be alert, and I would be less than truthful if I told you I enjoyed it as much as I used to."
Part of Silen's caution stems from public and Beacon Hill scrutiny of accidents involving elderly drivers, which hit a crescendo over the summer.
Lasell residents say their senses are heightened after reading about major elderly traffic accidents on a seemingly weekly basis: a 93-year-old Peabody, Mass., man drives into a Danvers Wal-Mart; an 88-year-old Canton, Mass., woman strikes and kills a 4-year-old Stoughton girl; a 79-year-old Weymouth, Mass., man strikes and kills a well-known police officer in town.
Senior drivers at Lasell Village say the four-hour refresher course, which covers fundamentals such as hearing, vision and flexibility changes in older motorists; backing up properly and driving and braking in bad weather; and driving alongside larger vehicles, should be required of all drivers. Silen, for one, is now contemplating installing a nearly 16-inch-long rearview mirror in his car to see things more clearly on the road. "If a middle-aged person has an accident, they will mention the block and the accident but they don't mention the age," said 85-year-old resident Inge Reinhard. "So it's age discriminatory and it's not fair. All circumstances should be mentioned, not just age." Vital Refresher In effect for 30 years, the courses are taught by AARP volunteers and are designed to help drivers aged 60 and over brush up on the rules of the road. The course, also offered in an online format, costs $15.95 for AARP members and $19.95 for nonmembers. Anyone who signs up for a course receives a 121-page driver's manual featuring visual aids, step-by-step instructions and quizzes. "We publicize it as the roads have changed, our vehicles have changed, but more importantly we have changed just with age," said AARP instructor Ed O'Connor. "So there's a lot of changes that have gone on and this is the perfect time to come back in and get a little bit of a classroom refresher."
Massachusetts drivers remain a stubborn lot at any age. The Bay State has the lowest number of course participants among the six New England states. Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, only 728 seniors signed up for a refresher course, 8 fewer than in Rhode Island, 619 less than in New Hampshire and more than 11,000 less than in Connecticut, according to statistics provided by AARP Massachusetts. AARP Massachusetts spokeswoman Jennifer Beam says one reason for the Bay State's poor numbers is that insurance companies do not offer discounts for those completing the course. Connecticut, Maine and Rhode Island do so. Regardless, Lasell's community recommends everyone there take the course to avoid a public backlash against seniors behind the wheel. "I personally have thought that maybe they should make this a requirement for when you're getting your license renewed," Silen said. "I've heard good things about it and I thought that I could learn something from it. And I did." Beacon Hill Pressure On Beacon Hill, a bill by Sen. Brian A. Joyce (D-Milton) would require drivers age 75 and older to retake road and vision tests every five years. "Overall, it's a very good bill and it seems to be held up in the House and I'm certainly hoping there is further action before we have another high-profile tragedy," he told the Herald.
While many seniors back the bill, some say attaching an age limit to it unfairly turns the tables. "I have always thought that if the individual was self-regulatory and could look at themselves in an unbiased way, which not everybody can do, that they would self-select and not drive if they didn't feel well. But that doesn't always happen," said 86-year-old Lasell resident Elly Kram. "But just say people over 85 shouldn't be driving -- I don't think that's fair." "If there are going to be any changes, it should be based on ability, not a person's age," said Ed O'Connor, 62. "There are 25-year-old drivers that have the problems seniors do, a lot of impatience out there and things like that.` Joyce is frustrated with current policy. All senior drivers have to do is pass a vision test and their license is renewed for five years. "A 95-year-old gentleman who lives down the hall from my dad just renewed his license," he said. "He's now good to go until he's 105 without any test of his physical or cognitive abilities. That simply defies common sense." According to 2008 data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 183,000 older individuals nationwide were injured in traffic crashes, which accounts for 8 percent of all injuries. Seniors made up 15 percent of traffic fatalities, 14 percent of vehicle-occupant fatalities and 18 percent of pedestrian fatalities. Out of 442 fatal crashes in Massachusetts in 2008, 53 drivers over 65 were involved.
A Loss of Freedom Aware of such risks, Inge Reinhard voluntarily gave up her license when she turned 85. She wasn't pushed or coerced by family, she said. Rather, the German-born retired hairdresser cited slower reflexes and problems with her right eye. "My reminder was that I got two flat tires in one week on the right side," Reinhard said. "I was hugging the curb." Reinhard relies on The Ride and Lasell Village's own drivers to get where she needs to go. The transition to full-time passenger is hard. "I'm devastated," she said half-jokingly. "You lose your personality, the spontaneous feeling and the freedom. You lose a lot when you give it up." Lasell Village vice president Paula Panchuck said seniors know their strengths and weaknesses, and a majority give up their licenses voluntarily if they feel impaired behind the wheel. Elly Kram's husband of 67 years died in a car accident in March at age 87. She said she pleaded with him repeatedly to give up driving, especially once he got sicker. However, she said his death has not deterred her in any way from getting behind the wheel. "It didn't occur to me that I shouldn't drive because I am a very careful driver," said Kram, a retired psychotherapist. "The only thing that came to mind was that I should have taken him to the doctor because then I would have been driving him, but I didn't."
Elderly drivers have other options when it comes to brushing up on the basics: In Control Crash Prevention Training offers courses throughout the state yet asks participants to cough up nearly $300 for lessons. AAA Southern New England offers a six-hour program, presented over two days, for drivers 55 and older for $15. Additionally, an $89 computer software program recommended by AAA called Drive Sharp is designed to improve driving skills through a series of visual computer exercises. Joyce calls these initiatives "terrific," but notes seniors can't be forced to do them, making all the difference in road safety. "I believe we have to mandate some form of continued testing or periodic testing," he said. "Particularly when a person reaches a certain age where physical and cognitive skills may be diminished."